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Doug Pray, “Art & Copy”: Highest End, Hip and Artists

Doug Pray, "Art & Copy": Highest End, Hip and Artists

EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

“Art & Copy” takes us inside a powerful, yet surprisingly unknown, industry to reveal the most influential creative forces tapping the zeitgeist of our time , according to the Sundance Film Festival catalog. Think of those commercials we can never seem to get out of our heads. Each one is the brain child of an industry typically associated with pandering and manipulation. Is great advertising actually a rare and rebellious accomplishment more akin to–dare I say it–art? Beginning in the 1960s, a creative revolution revitalized the advertising industry.

Bill Bernbach launched the Volkswagen Beetle, prompting viewers to “think small.” Dan Wieden coined “Just Do It” and forever changed the way we motivate ourselves athletically. Phyllis Robinson empowered the “me generation” with a Clairol tagline. Hal Riney all but insured Reagan’s reelection with heart-tugging TV ads. Mary Wells Lawrence reinvented the big bad apple via her “I love NY” campaign. George Lois gave Tommy Hilfiger the makeover of a lifetime, while Cliff Freeman wondered “Where’s the beef?” and Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein asked, “Got Milk?” Renowned documentary filmmaker Doug Pray (“Scratch,” “Surfwise”) intermingles dazzling footage of TV satellites being launched and billboards being erected with some of the most remarkable ad campaigns of all time.

Art & Copy
Sundance Film Festival Documentary Competition
Director: Doug Pray
Screenwriter: Timothy J. Sexton
Executive Producers: David Baldwin, Gregory Beauchamp, Kirk Souder, Mary Warlick
Producers: Jimmy Greenway, Michael Nadeau
Cinematographer: Peter Nelson
Editor: Philip Owens
Music: Jeff Mart

Please introduce yourself…

I’m 48 years old and born in Denver and grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. I was never a movie buff. My interest in filmmaking comes from an interest in sociology, people, art and music. My mother was a musician and an artist, and my father was a geology professor. I’ve always been into media and communications: graphic art, writing, filmmaking, radio, etc. As is true of a lot of directors, filmmaking combined for me a variety of interests into one focus.

How did you learn the “craft” of filmmaking?

I went to UCLA film school and loved it. I don’t think film school is for everybody– there are so many people who succeed without it, but it was right for me because I had no contacts in the film industry, knew nothing about film history or the business, all of it was new to me. I did not, however, take any documentary classes when I was there, which is ironic because my entire career has revolved around documentary filmmaking. Yet, it’s true that all the things I learned in film school about story narrative, directing actors, blocking for camera and staging scenes, have directly applied to my documentary work with non-actors and live situations. I’m still telling stories and trying to create cinematic scenes. Even conducting interviews is like working with actors – they need to trust where you’re taking them. You want them to be comfortable and in touch with their feelings, and you try to coax great quotes out of them, just as you encourage great performances out of actors. It’s all filmmaking.

“Art & Copy” director Doug Pray. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

How or what prompted the idea for “Art & Copy” and how did it evolve?

I was approached with the idea by producers Michael Nadeau and Jimmy Greenway, whom I had worked with in the past. They were working with a non-profit organization named The One Club which wanted to make a film about creativity in the advertising business. At first, it seemed like it might be a challenge to get an audience to sympathize with the people behind advertising, since it is so often viewed as manipulative and mediocre. But I soon realized that this wasn’t a movie about all advertising (95% of which is awful, just like 95% of all TV, movies, magazines and books) but that this was about the best and the brightest of the last four decades – those rare few who had truly redefined advertising with the power of their ideas.

I saw the film as an opportunity to meet a group of individuals who’ve arguably shaped our culture more than any others, but who are almost completely unknown outside their business. Having access to them was what made the movie possible. What made it interesting and entertaining were the creatives themselves: their passion for communicating, their surprising views about what they do, their fears and demons, and their particular genius at moving the masses. We accumulated interviews with about a dozen of these folks (all members of the One Club Hall of Fame) and then, working closely with my editor Philip Owens and writer Tim Sexton, we figured out what we should shoot as B-roll to provide more visual interest to counter the interviews.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…

My past films have revolved around more underground, edgy or street subcultures, like “Infamy” (about graffiti writers), “Scratch” and “Hype.” Even “Surfwise” and “Big Rig” (about truck drivers) are portraits of people who feel outside of society. This film presented quite a different community: men and women who were pioneers at the highest-end of the high-end ad business. Even the interview locations were a stunning change: gorgeous New York City penthouses and expansive, hip, west-coast ad agencies.

More importantly, the subjects were talking about art and society. So cinematographer Peter Nelson and I decided early on to scrap the whole “gritty, handheld” doc vibe, and aspire to a classier, more cinematic approach in our coverage. We shot in HD, used longer lenses, and spent lots more time shooting B-roll than normal. We wanted to create a film experience more like Koyaanisqatsi or Errol Morris’ “Fast Cheap and Out of Control” (one of my favorite docs for how he took 90 minutes of intellectual discourse and made it completely entertaining).

Otherwise, my approach was to stick to the emotions, the creative motivations, and overall general philosophies of the ad creatives, rather than bogging down in process or “war-stories.” I knew the film had to play out on a general level. It wasn’t going to be a “behind-the-scenes” of an ad campaign, it was – who ARE these people and what inspires them?

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

The biggest challenge came in trying to frame the film and it’s overall subject. People have such strong negative feelings about advertising. They may love their superbowl ads, and they may love “MadMen” on TV, but otherwise it’s a tough sell, to sell those who sell. So, instead of focusing on what’s bad about ads (that movie is so easy to make it’s not worth making), we focussed it on creativity. Treating the subjects as great artists and writers (which they are) and making a more inspirational movie about the power of creativity. I tried to make the interviews as personal as possible, and found that each of these individuals saw themselves as having an innate need to communicate from early on in their lives. We explored how they were, in a way, rebels for how they challenged an industry full of cynics and bottom-line mentality, and still managed to get a personal message out to the masses, via someone else’s money and products.

What are some of your favorite films?

I love the work of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. I got into filmmaking because a professor of mine forced me to watch a whole bunch of Fassbender films. But now that I’ve been making films for a decade or so, I find watching most movies to be anxiety-producing.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

It’s rather obvious to say this, but I want the audience to be moved. If they aren’t, I’ve wasted 90 minutes of their time and a couple years of my life. I also want the subjects in my film to feel respected. I don’t mean whether or not I was nice to them– this isn’t a tribute film– I mean that the things they believe in and feel strongly about become the core experience of the film itself. That my directing doesn’t somehow reinterpret their voices, but that it amplifies and presents them in a way that audiences can relate to. I want my audiences to feel the enthusiasm and passion of the characters. And finally, I want the movie to express my own enthusiasm for whatever I’m documenting. I tend to get very excited when I meet interesting people, and think my best work is when that enthusiasm is being felt directly.

What are your future projects?

I’m going to take some time off of making documentaries and focus on new challenges, at least for the near future. I love making docs, but the last three or years I have been 100% non-stop shooting, editing, or having meetings about this film, and my other recent features, “Big Rig” and “Surfwise.”

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